Learning to Be a Self
– SElf-Knowledge & the Evolution of Being –
Take a look at the entirety of your life, from the moment you slipped out of your mama’s womb to now, and ask yourself if there was a point along this journey when you discovered the “I”? Yes, the ego — that incessant voice in your head — but also the unseen, boundless, non-transferable divinity in you: the “I”?
What about if we take a bird’s-eye view of the evolution of human thought? Is there a point in time when humanity first discovered the “I”? Once discovered, how were we then able to share something that can’t be removed from you? That is, how could we have conceptualized it and pointed others to it if they had not yet witnessed the “I” for themselves?
What did — or might — this discovery look like for you, individually, and what did it look like for humankind? What is its significance to your being?
Soak with me in these sweet sounds of reverie.
Introduction & Summary
This is the first episode in a four-part series that will explore the evolution of humankind’s being — that is, of how we experience our ‘selves’ to be:
- Infancy — Primordial Man: Learning to be a Self
- Childhood — The Ancient Ionians: Losing Our Selves in the World
- Adolescence — Socrates & Plato: Discovering the Soul
- Adulthood — Jesus Christ: The Divine “I” in You
Self in Relation to the World
When you first came into this world, you probably didn’t know your self. Your body was armed with innate impulses—automatic genetic algorithms — say, to feel hunger and to make the movements necessary to breastfeed. But it seems unlikely you experienced your ‘self’ as separate from the world. The entirety of experience most likely was you — you were completely solipsistic, absent of self-awareness.
I think only with time and experience, as the environment got in the way of your innate impulses, could you then start to tease the world apart from you. Only then, it seems, could you learn that there are things in the world for you to manipulate, navigate, avoid, use, or perhaps persuade in order to act out your innate impulses.
A thought experiment may be helpful here. Consider you hand a chimp or a primordial human a treat. The chimp will reactively reach out and take the treat without pause. There is no need for reflection. But if you block the treat with obstacles, immediate action is held up. So, the chimp must use thought, or intelligence, to reach its thwarted desire or impulse.
What’s happening in the chimp’s or primordial man’s mind during this pause? We might imagine them thinking or visualizing something along the lines of:
‘How can I get that treat? Hmm…here are some boxes. Maybe if I pile them up and climb on them, I’ll be able to reach it!’
Like the baby, the chimp and primordial man, in this case, paints concepts—or imagery — around only those parts of the world that stand in relation to its impulses. Everything else is ignored. 
We learn our ‘selves’, then, through this conditioning — as our impulses move us, we get feedback from the environment about where our ‘edges’ are; our impulses continuously dance with our environments, and thereby shape our ‘selves’ inextricably together with objects in the world. Our ‘selves’, at this stage, then, are always conditional.
Who, in this stage, are you? Can you turn your attention around and follow the objects back to you? Not to your body, but to ‘you’?
Self in Relation to Spirit
Consider, again, our chimp or primordial man who has been confronted with an obstacle.
There is a pause. The chimp’s action is held up. It must reflect.
While the chimp’s action is suspended, what do you think it feels? Resistance? Some kind of invisible power that it needs to overcome?
Once the chimp or primordial man has reflected on and conceptualized this unseen power, where might the chimp place it? Where is this feeling of resistance? Does the chimp think it exists in the object, which it believes has a will of its own, or does the chimp think this resistance comes from within?
And what about when the chimp realizes the boxes will help it get the treat, might the chimp feel that there are things with good intentions too, things that sympathize with and forward the chimp’s own aims? Or, again, will the chimp recognize this as an inner state, an inner feeling?
These invisible forces — these helpful or harmful intentions — are, of course, fragmentary elements of the chimp’s own inner personality. But I doubt the chimp or primordial man thinks these invisible forces come from within; they are projected onto the outer world as unwittingly as a child who kicks her toy cuz’ it pinched her finger. Why would the toy do such a thing?
It seems clear from reading ancient literature and religious texts that, over time, these invisible forces began to separate from their objects and develop into the building blocks of the supernatural world. That is, as humans continued to reflect in moments of suspended action, these invisible powers began to take on shapes of their own, developing their own characteristics and personalities.
You can find these numina—unseen powers whose content is expressed in abstract nouns — in many ancient religious writings. Janus, for example, in the ancient Roman religion, is not a fully personified god who presides over doorways and gates but is simply ‘the spirit of door-ness’ — a spiritual power present in all doors that can help or harm one who passes through them.
Magic and mythology, it seems, find their roots here. As magic — or practices designed to navigate these supernatural forces—accumulated, a need would have developed for mythology and religion, which construct a history and understanding of the supernatural, painting these unseen powers with more definite shapes, giving them an increasingly concrete form.
And so, the supernatural slowly detached from objects and molded into beings of their own; numina transformed into complete anthropomorphic gods, like the gods of Egypt, India, Greece, and all the rest.
Supernatural knowledge, therefore, became knowledge of a higher order, knowledge of the gods revealed only to the inspired or (as the Greeks said) to the ‘divine’ man — the prophet, poet, and priest.
In addition to the material world, then, our ‘selves’ were also conditioned by the supernatural — by unseen forces, which seem to exist in another realm.
Again, who are you? Can you turn your attention around and follow a spirit — or feeling — back to you?
In our infancy — both in the individual’s and in humankind’s — we fracture Existence into self and things, both material and spiritual. We separate our ‘selves’ from the oneness, the stillness, in which we came; we separate our ‘selves’ from God.
Are ‘you’ the conditional ‘self’ — the subject who relates to and identifies with objects and feelings: I’m angry, I’m hurt, my body, my car…?
Or have you found your way to a higher plane of being?